The Problem of Political Authority   —   Part II: Society without Authority

13. From Democracy to Anarchy

  1. Against presentist bias:
    the prospects for radical change
  2. Steps toward anarchy
    1. Outsourcing court duties
    2. Outsourcing police duties
    3. The end of standing armies
    4. The rest of the way
  3. The geographical spread of anarchy
  4. The importance of ideas
  5. Conclusion
    1. The argument of Part I
    2. The argument of Part II
    3. The argument of this chapter

Anarchy may be desirable in theory, but is it attainable? In this chapter, I argue that the eventual development of an anarcho- capitalist order, while not inevitable, is neither impossible nor exceedingly improbable.

13.1 Against presentist bias: the prospects for radical change

We may be tempted to conclude that the rise of an anarcho-capitalist world is exceedingly improbable or impossible simply on the grounds that anarcho-capitalism has never been realized and is very different from the status quo. I argue that we should resist this temptation. Three broad observations contribute to my optimism. First, many radical changes have occurred in human history, including major political and cultural changes. Second, the future will most likely see even more rapid change than the past. Third, some of the most important long-term social changes have been in a direction consistent with the eventual emergence of anarcho-capitalism.

To elaborate on the first observation: anatomically modern homo sapiens emerged 200,000 years ago. For the first 190,000 years, there was no civilization, and humans lived mainly as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Little changed during all that time. An alien observer would have long since given up on seeing anything interesting. But around 10,000 years ago, human beings began the radical shift from primitive society to civilization, which has by now encompassed nearly the entire species.

During most of the history of civilization, human society was organized in a manner that could best be described as tyranny - societies ruled by individual autocrats or small groups of aristocrats, with little regard for the rights or interests of the citizens. Democracy had been tried only sporadically and very imperfectly. But beginning around 200 years ago - after 9800 years of tyranny - human beings finally began a determined move toward democracy, a change that accelerated in the twentieth century and by now seems destined to encompass the entire earth (see Figure 13.1).[1]

Figure 13.1 The number of democratic nations in the world, 1800-2010

Human beings are unusual among nature's products - they may do the same thing for thousands or hundreds of thousands of years and then rapidly shift to a radically new form of behavior. The rise of civilization and the shift from tyranny to democracy are both examples of radical changes in human social organization made possible by human intelligence. And many other dramatic social and political changes have occurred in recorded history: the abolition of slavery, the spread of women's suffrage, extreme declines in rates of violence, the rise and fall of communism, increasing globalization, and so on. It would be foolish to suppose that radical social change has stopped. If anything, the pace of social change appears to be accelerating. In the last 20 years, for example, democracy spread to about as many new countries as it had reached during the preceding 200 years. Both economic and technological development appears to be exponential. New information technologies and the increasing interconnectedness of the world appear to make possible more rapid social change than ever before.

We cannot now predict what human society will look like a century or more in the future, any more than our ancestors of centuries past could have predicted the shape of our society. What we do know is that the future will not look like the present. The radical changes of the past have been not only economic and technological but social and political as well. It would therefore be myopic to suppose that our current social and political institutions will remain immune from radical change. I am not predicting the inevitable rise of worldwide anarchy. I am, however, holding out anarchy as one possible outcome for humanity, given the chaotic nature of human history and the large uncertainty of the future.

Are there any specific reasons for considering this a plausible outcome? One sort of reason is that of the broad trends seen over human history, some of the most salient are consistent with a move in the direction of anarcho-capitalism. The most philosophically interesting trends are the trends in human values. It is difficult to overstate the degree of liberalization that humanity has seen over its history. Consider just a few examples.

Broadly speaking, the evolution of values has been in the direction of greater respect for persons, a stronger presumption against violence and coercion, and a recognition of the equal moral status of all persons. This shift in values has driven the trend away from authoritarianism and towards liberal democracy. But these moral values are ultimately not consistent with government in any form. All governments are founded practically upon unjust coercion and philosophically on a claim by the state to a special moral status that sets it above all nongovernmental persons and groups. Equal respect for persons is not compatible with the doctrine of political authority.[5] It seems plausible, therefore, that as these trends in moral attitudes advance, the realization may one day dawn on humanity that in fact no one possesses political authority.

Some may reject my optimism, citing the great expansion in the powers of central governments in Western countries over the last century. Projecting this trend forwards, one might anticipate that in 100 years, if not much sooner, the entire world will be fully socialist.

Aworldwide (state) socialist future is possible, just as a world anarchist future is possible. Some trends point towards consolidation of state power, while others point in the opposite direction. The collapse of communism at the end of the twentieth century marked an enormous move in the direction of freedom and away from government control. And as I have suggested, the move toward liberal democracy over the past 200 years likewise marked an enormous victory for individual liberty. Whether the world will ultimately settle on democratic socialism, anarchism, or some other social system depends in part on the outcome of philosophical debates that are presently in progress in our society.

13.2 Steps toward anarchy

If anarchy had to be achieved through a sudden abolition of all government, it would be a remote prospect. Such a rapidly achieved anarchy would also likely have disappointing results - if government were to suddenly disappear, without any prior development of such alternative institutions as private security and arbitration firms, chaos would likely ensue. Perhaps alternative institutions would arise spontaneously in due time, but it is also likely that the chaos would give rise to immediate demands for a new government. For these reasons, it is desirable to develop a gradualist model of the abolition of government in which alternative institutions grow at the same time that the government shrinks.

13.2.1 Outsourcing court duties

Afirst step toward anarchy is to diminish the role of government courts by outsourcing their work to private arbitrators. This process is already underway. Many readers hold credit cards whose agreements specify binding arbitration in the event of a dispute between the cardholder and the credit card company - a situation that in times past would have called for litigation in a government court. In recent years, commercial disputes are increasingly resolved through private arbitration. The VISA corporation provides arbitration for all disputes among its member banks.[6] In the United States, the practice of including arbitration clauses in employment contracts has spread dramatically since the 1970s, so that today an estimated 15 to 25 percent of employers use arbitration for the resolution of disputes with employees.[7] Courts generally recognize these clauses and thus refuse to overrule arbitrators' decisions (with a few exceptions);[8] private arbitrators thus form an effective substitute for government courts in a wide range of cases. It is easy to imagine this trend continuing until private arbitrators hear almost all disputes between parties to a contract.

Government could push the process further by declaring that its courts will no longer hear certain kinds of cases and referring these cases to arbitrators.[9] For example, a great burden would be lifted from the court system if all divorce cases had to be handled through private arbitrators (even without a prior agreement between the parties to that effect). The most controversial step would be to outsource the resolution of criminal cases. This step would be more plausible once we began to view criminal cases, not as disputes between the defendant and the state, but as disputes between the defendant and the crime victim. When viewed in this way, there is no reason why these cases, too, could not be handled through private arbitration.

Why would any government agree to promote its own eventual obsolescence by outsourcing one of its most central functions? One reason is that courts are severely overburdened and would welcome the lightening of their caseloads. Some state legislatures and courts in the United States already require certain disputes (particularly those involving automobile insurance claims) to be resolved by arbitration.[10] Another possible reason is public opinion. Should the public become sufficiently disenchanted with the government's court system, a democratic legislature might pass laws requiring the sort of changes described above.

13.2.2 Outsourcing police duties

Along with court duties, the government could outsource its policing duties. This process, too, is already underway. According to a recent report, there are now 20 million private security guards worldwide - about twice as many as the number of government police.[11] In America, private security guards number about 1 million, compared to 700,000 government police. In some cases, the government itself hires private security guards to protect public spaces, including the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the Statue of Liberty in New York, and the main bus terminal in Durham, North Carolina.[12] If this trend continues, we could one day see a situation in which all public spaces are protected by private security guards.

In many countries - the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and others - private citizens are legally authorized to make citizens' arrests. The conditions for a legal citizen's arrest, however, tend to be much more restricted than the conditions under which government police may make an arrest. Legal authorization for citizens' arrests may be limited to certain kinds of crimes, and the arresting citizen may be required to personally witness the crime in progress. One could imagine a liberalization of such laws, permitting citizens' arrests for all crimes, including cases in which the suspect's guilt is established by investigation after the fact. Private security agencies could then take over not only patrol duties but duties of investigation and arrest of suspected criminals.

Care would need to be taken in making this transition. If a state or local government were to give up its monopoly on policing only to grant that monopoly to a private corporation, the private corporation could be expected to exhibit the same problems as government police, possibly even more problems. The keys to realizing the benefits of the free market are voluntariness and competition. Thus, in making the transition to private enforcement of laws, we must preserve a number of competing private security agencies, and small groups of citizens must choose their protectors. For instance, individual neighborhoods or apartment buildings should have the choice of which security agency would be responsible for security on their grounds.

Again, there are two reasons why governments might acquiesce in this social change. First, overburdened governments facing budget pressures might welcome the lightening of their policing duties. Second, an enlightened public may one day recognize the need for competition and voluntariness in traditionally governmental services and demand reforms from their representatives.

13.2.3 The end of standing armies

In early America, the idea of maintaining standing armies in peacetime was controversial, with several of the American founders warning against the dangers such armies posed to freedom.[13] Today, the debate has been resolved in favor of standing armies, with very little dissension.

But it is not obvious that we have resolved the issue either correctly or permanently. Future generations may prove ever more peace loving, continuing the trend of past centuries and millennia. As war becomes ever more despised, perhaps in a world dominated by liberal democracies, the idea of maintaining vast armies at all times, equipped with city-destroying weapons, may come to seem increasingly foolish and primitive.

Some national governments are already in a position to drastically reduce their militaries without fear of endangering national security. The United States, for example, could cut its military budget by 83 percent and still remain the largest military spender in the world.[14] Such a change would probably require much greater public awareness of the facts about the military budget, as well as a greater disposition towards peace on the part of American citizens. If the nations with the world's largest militaries were to begin to draw down their forces, other nations, perceiving a reduced foreign threat, could also reduce their militaries. Two key facts would drive this process: first, a military is needed only to counter other nations' militaries; if no one had a military, no one would need a military.[15] Second, it requires more military power to invade a country than it does to defend a country. Therefore, if in each year, every country were to maintain only the military force needed for defense, the world level of military forces would continually ratchet downwards until ultimately no nation either had or needed a standing army.

Since one militaristic nation can stall it, this process is likely to be slow and may have to wait on the emergence of a worldwide culture of antimilitarism. Unfortunately, this means that the final solution to the problem of war (elimination of the entities that make war) may have to wait until the problem has been nearly eliminated through other means (the rise of democracy and increasing unpopularity of war).

13.2.4 The rest of the way

The above speculated changes would take the world to what we might call 'the subminimal state': a government or government-like entity that has given up what are often considered some of the core, or minimal, functions of the state - namely, the police, courts, and military.[16] The state thus arrived at, through gradual changes, is very close to anarchy. Indeed, some may consider the condition I have imagined to be already one of anarchy.

What remains is the abolition of the legislature. At present, the legislature is considered necessary to make the laws that police and courts are to enforce. And a legislature is indeed necessary to make most of the kinds of laws that exist in modern nations, including moralistic laws, paternalistic laws, rent-seeking laws, and so on.[17] If, however, a society adopted a libertarian philosophy of law, which calls only for laws that prevent victimization of one individual or group by another, then judge-made common law should suffice. Once a society had replaced government courts with private arbitrators and government police with private security guards, assuming that these private mechanisms worked reasonably well, it would be possible to disband the legislature.

Exactly how this would come about is unclear. Would the legislature vote to disband itself? It is hard to imagine any politician supporting such a move. Would public demonstrators march on the capitol and pressure the obsolete politicians into resigning? Perhaps. One thing that seems very plausible, in any case, is that if the legislature no longer had the power, through police or armies, to coerce the rest of society, and the rest of society no longer wished to have a legislature, then the legislature would not long persist.

I have focused here on police, courts, the military, and the legislature because these are usually seen as the most basic and indispensible arms of government. Modern governments have many other tentacles reaching into all aspects of life, and I cannot discuss these here. Even with the aspects of government I have addressed, my account has been speculative and sketchy. No one can predict in detail what the future may hold. My aim, however, has been to show that the eventual emergence of anarchy from the present state of affairs is not implausible and could proceed in gradual steps.

13.3 The geographical spread of anarchy

Anarchy is unlikely to overtake the whole world simultaneously. It is unlikely even to overtake a single large country all at once. What is more likely is that a few small countries or small local governments will take the lead in starting or expanding the sort of experiments in the outsourcing of police and court functions described above. The smaller a government is, the less inertia that government will experience, and the more likely it is to consider radical proposals, especially those that involve giving up government power. Consider, for example, that the world's leaders in the abolition of standing armies are all small countries (Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, and so on).[18] The current world leader in the liberalization of drug laws is another small country, Portugal.[19] The world leader in economic liberalization is a single city, Hong Kong. And according to one libertarian-oriented ranking, the freest country in the world is the small nation of Estonia.[20]

Once someone takes the lead in reducing a particular sort of government power, it becomes more likely that other cities or countries will follow suit. In the global information age, this sort of spread of good political ideas is more likely than ever, because large numbers of people can see how policies elsewhere are working. Although the process took decades, the stark contrast between life in Marxist-communist regimes and life in the capitalist West ultimately undermined communism from within. As the living standards in democratic capitalist nations drew further and further ahead of those in communist countries, year after year, it became ever more difficult to believe communist ideology, until hardly anyone believed it any longer. A similar process could transpire in the future, between large-government societies and societies practicing something closer to anarcho-capitalism.

The entire process could take centuries. Even today, about half the world's nations continue to embrace autocratic forms of government, despite the overwhelming evidence of the superiority of democracy over authoritarianism. The evident superiority of democracy is not causally impotent - it explains why democracy has spread to half the world, starting from a situation two and a half centuries ago in which no nations were democratic. But some human societies are slower to change than others, so that many will continue a practice long after it is obvious to all that the practice is a terrible idea. Thus, if anarcho-capitalism arrives on the scene, it will probably do so at a time when most of the world lives under democratic government, while some of the world lives still under despotic government. Nations bordering on despotic countries will be ill advised to abandon their governments until after their neighbors' despotic governments have finally fallen.

I have written as if the world's march toward democracy will continue, with all authoritarian governments ultimately destined to fall. This is not inevitable. Perhaps the progress of democratization will stall. Perhaps the world will fall into totalitarianism. But it is at least plausible to think not.

13.4 The importance of ideas

Historical events are often explained in terms of the interests of competing individuals and factions. Sometimes, nonrational emotions and biases are brought into the picture. But we should remember that human beings also possess intelligence and a basic ability to distinguish good ideas from bad ideas. This is the most important and fundamental reason for my optimism regarding the future of anarcho-capitalism. Let me make the reasoning explicit.

  1. The theory of anarcho-capitalism is true and well justified.
  2. If the theory of anarcho-capitalism is true and well justified, it will come to be generally accepted.
  3. If the theory of anarcho-capitalism becomes generally accepted, anarcho-capitalism will be implemented.
  4. Therefore, anarcho-capitalism will be implemented.

The first premise is supported by the rest of this book.

The second premise rests on the general tendency for correct ideas to win out in the long run. At any moment in history, it will be tempting to look around at all the people with bad ideas and conclude that humanity is too irrational and ignorant ever to grasp the important truths. But this is historical myopia. The most salient and important trend that stands out in any study of the intellectual history of the past 2000 years must surely be the gradual accretion of knowledge and the corresponding move from worse ideas to better ideas. The process is of course not monotonic - there are cases of stagnation and regression - but the undeniable difference between humanity's knowledge today and its knowledge 2000 years ago is staggering. In the short run, the forces of prejudice may outweigh those of rationality. But prejudices can be worn down over time, while the basic truth of a given idea remains intact over the centuries, exerting whatever force it has on the human mind.

Sometimes it is said that, unlike the sciences, fields such as philosophy, ethics, and politics have made little or no progress in the last 2000 years. While the natural sciences have made the most impressive intellectual progress, the dramatic progress that has occurred in philosophical, moral, and political matters can be missed only through a modern lens that filters out all those issues that we no longer consider worth discussing because we have already resolved them. Throughout most of human history, slavery was widely accepted as just. The mass slaughter of foreigners for purposes of capturing land and resources, forcing conformity to one's own religion, or exacting vengeance for perceived wrongs against one's ancestors was often viewed with approval, if not glorified. Alexander 'the Great' was so called because of his prowess at waging what nearly anyone today would unhesitatingly judge to be unjust and vicious wars. Judicial torture and execution for minor offences was widely accepted. 'Witches' were burned at the stake or drowned. Despotism was the standard form of government, under which people were granted no right to participate in the political process. Even when democracy was at last accepted in some countries, half the adult population was denied any rights of political participation because they were deemed inferior.

When people today say that there is little agreement in ethics and politics, they are ignoring all the issues mentioned in the preceding paragraph. For us, none of those issues is worth discussing, since the correct evaluation is intellectually trivial. 'Should we torture someone to extract a confession of witchcraft and then execute her for being a witch?' This question merits no more than a laugh. But practically speaking, these questions are far from trivial. Slow though it may have been in coming, the current consensus on all these questions represents an enormous advancement from terrible ideas to not-so- terrible ideas.

One might question how far the trend of moral progress will continue. The wrongness of slavery, torture, despotism, and the like is obvious, whereas the wrongness of government, if it is wrong, is more subtle. Perhaps human beings were smart enough, over the course of a few thousand years, to figure out the blindingly obvious moral issues but are not smart enough to figure out more subtle ones.

Perhaps. Then again, what is obvious may be relative to one's time. If a thinker of the stature of Aristotle could not see that slavery was unjust, we must question how objectively obvious it was. And on the other hand, future generations will likely find obvious some things that we have difficulty seeing today. 'Is there a special group of people with the right to use threats of violence to force everyone else to obey their commands, even when their commands are wrong?' Future generations may view the answer to that as too obvious to merit discussion.

My third premise was that, if anarcho-capitalism is generally accepted, it will be adopted. Notwithstanding the sketchy speculations offered in Sections 13.2 and 13.3, I do not know how this will come about. Nevertheless, I consider the premise highly probable. The image of a society continuing to maintain its government, year after year, generation after generation, when most people have long since reached the consensus that it is a bad idea, seems almost absurd. Human social practices are not so disconnected from our beliefs. If society reaches an anarchist consensus, someone will figure out how to get the politicians to go home.

We are a long way from that state of affairs today. Almost everyone believes that some form of government is practically necessary and ethically legitimate. The first step on the road to a nongovernmental society is therefore to change attitudes about government. Those who have been persuaded of anarchism need to make the case to the rest of their society. I hope this book will form part of a societal discourse that in due time accomplishes that task.

In an earlier chapter, I characterized as overly utopian the idea of remedying the flaws in democracy purely through citizen activism (Section 9.4.4). I argued that this would require too much sacrifice on the part of citizens. Why is the proposal of this chapter not similarly utopian? Why is it more realistic to expect that citizens convinced of the illegitimacy of government will work to abolish their government than it is to expect that citizens apprised of the flawed policies implemented by a democratic government will work to perfect their government's policies?

The answer is that acquiring awareness of the illegitimacy of government in general is much, much less cognitively demanding than acquiring sufficient awareness of the specific policy errors of a particular government to enable one to make rational plans to correct most of those errors. To realize that government is illegitimate, it suffices to accept the arguments in this book. But to identify most of the specific policy errors of one's government would require detailed familiarity with thousands of statutes and regulations; dozens of government agencies, boards, and commissions; and hundreds of political figures. One would have to update this knowledge continuously throughout one's life to take account of each new action of each arm of the government. It is much more realistic to hope that a consensus could be reached on a single philosophical principle, the rejection of authority, than to hope that a consensus could be reached on the specific flaws of most particular government policies.

13.5 Conclusion

13.5.1 The argument of Part I

The modern state claims a kind of authority that obliges all other agents to obey the state's commands and entitles the state to deploy violence and threats of violence to enforce those commands, independent of whether the commands are in themselves just, reasonable, or beneficial. The argument of the first half of this book is that that sort of authority, 'political authority', is an illusion. No state is legitimate, and no individual has political obligations. This leads to the conclusion that at minimum, the vast majority of government activities are unjust. Government agents should refuse to enforce unjust laws, and individuals should feel free to break such laws whenever they can safely do so.

The argument against political authority proceeded by examining the most important arguments for authority and finding each inadequate. The traditional social contract theory fails due to one salient fact: there is no actual contract. The most common theory of contemporary social contract enthusiasts - that an arrangement is rendered voluntary and contractual by the fact that one could have escaped its imposition through relocation to Antarctica - would draw scarcely more than a laugh in any other context.

The alternative of a purely hypothetical social contract fails for two reasons: first, there is no reason to think that all reasonable persons could agree, even in idealized circumstances, on even the most basic political theory. Second, a merely hypothetical contract is ethically irrelevant. However fair, reasonable, and impartial a contract might be, one is not typically thereby entitled to force others to accept it.

The democratic process fails to ground authority, as one typically does not acquire a right to coerce someone merely because those who want one to coerce the victim are more numerous than those who want one to refrain. The appeal to the ideal of deliberative democracy fails, because no actual state remotely resembles an ideal deliberative democracy, and in any case, no mere method of deliberation negates the rights of an individual. The appeal to the obligations to promote equality and to respect others' judgment fails for several reasons, including that these obligations are not strong enough to override individuals' rights, that they are not the sort of obligation that may typically be enforced through coercion, and that the idea of political legitimacy itself is a much clearer violation of the value of equality than the failure of individuals to obey democratically made laws.

The appeal to the good consequences of government fails to ground authority because an individual's obedience to the law has no impact on the state's ability to provide those benefits, and an agent's provision of large overall benefits does not confer on the agent an entitlement to coerce others to obey the agent's commands independent of the content of those commands.

The appeal to fairness likewise cannot ground an obligation to obey harmful, unjust, or useless commands nor an ethical entitlement to deploy coercion in support of such commands.

A review of psychological and historical evidence concerning human attitudes to authority suggests two important lessons: first, most individuals have strong pro-authority biases that render their intuitions about authority untrustworthy. Second, institutions of authority are extremely dangerous, and the undermining of trust in authority is therefore highly socially beneficial.

13.5.2 The argument of Part II

Pace Hobbes, when diverse agents have roughly equal power, it is prudentially irrational for any agent to initiate conflict. In contrast, centralization of power invites exploitation and abuse by the powerful. The democratic process inhibits the worst government abuses, but it remains imperfect due to widespread ignorance and irrationality on the part of voters. Constitutional restrictions are often impotent, since there is none but the government to enforce the constitution. The separation of powers fails because the branches of government can best promote their interests through making common cause in expanding state power rather than protecting the rights of the people.

The contention of Part II of this book is that a superior alternative exists, in which governmental functions are privatized. Police duties may be taken over by private security guards, perhaps hired by small local property owners' associations. This system differs from governmental provision of security in that it relies on genuine contractual arrangements, and it incorporates meaningful competition among security providers. These differences would lead to higher quality, lower cost, and less potential for abuse than found in coercive monopolistic systems.

Resolution of disputes, including disputes about whether a given individual committed a crime and whether a given type of conduct ought to be tolerated, would be provided by private arbitrators. Individuals and firms in an anarchic society would choose this method of resolving disputes because it is far less costly than resolution through violence. Law would be generated chiefly by the arbitrators themselves, in the manner in which the common law has developed in the actual world. The voluntariness and competitiveness of the system, again, would lead to higher quality, lower costs, and less abuse.

The elimination of government military forces need not leave a society insecure. Under certain favorable conditions, a society can be safe from invasion despite the lack of military deterrence. In the event of invasion, guerrilla warfare or nonviolent resistance can prove surprisingly effective at expelling foreign occupiers. In some ways, having a government makes a society more rather than less likely to be involved in war - for example, because one's government may provoke a conflict. A number of small countries have already successfully abolished their militaries without being conquered as a result. The maintenance of standing armies entails a nontrivial risk of those armies being used unjustly, as well as a risk of one's government inventing new weapons of mass destruction that threaten the human species.

13.5.3 The argument of this chapter

It is reasonable to believe that anarchy may come to the world in due time. The most plausible transitional model is one in which democratic societies move gradually toward anarcho-capitalism through progressive outsourcing of governmental functions to competing businesses. No obstacle but public opinion and inertia prevents government from turning over policing, dispute resolution, or even the conduct of criminal trials to private agents. Governmental armed forces could be drawn down and ultimately eliminated through an extended ratcheting-down process in which each country repeatedly cuts back its military forces to only those needed for defense. The process of eliminating government is likely to be spearheaded by small democratic countries or cities. Larger countries could be expected to follow suit only after the success of small-scale experiments was evident to most observers.

The most important determinant of whether this process will occur is intellectual: if anarcho-capitalism is a good idea, then it will probably ultimately be recognized as such. Once it is generally recognized as desirable, it will probably eventually be implemented. Abolishing the state is more realistic than reforming it, because abolition requires people to accept only a single philosophical idea - skepticism about authority - whereas reform requires people to familiarize themselves on an ongoing basis with the myriad flaws of specific policies.

This book is an effort to help push society along towards the needed skepticism of authority. It may seem that my position is extreme - as of course it is, relative to the current spectrum of opinion. But current mainstream attitudes are also extreme, relative to the spectrum of opinion of earlier centuries. The average citizen of a modern democracy, if transported back in time 500 years, would be the most wild-eyed, radical liberal on the planet - endorsing an undreamt-of equality for both sexes and all races; free expression for the most heinous of heretics, infidels, and atheists; a complete abolition of numerous standard forms of punishment; and a radical restructuring of all existing governments. By current standards, every government of 500 years ago was illegitimate.

We have not come to the end of history (pace Fukuyama). The evolution of values can proceed further in the direction it has moved over the past two millennia. It could proceed to an even greater distaste for the resort to physical force in human interactions, a fuller respect for human dignity, and a more consistent recognition of the moral equality of persons. Once we take these values sufficiently seriously, we cannot but be skeptical of authority.

My method of pushing readers along this path has been to appeal to implicit values that I think you share. I do not rely on an abstract, theoretical account of these values; I rely on the intuitive reactions we have to relatively specific scenarios. Nor do I rely on tentative or controversial intuitions; I rely on clear, mainstream intuitions. For example, the judgment that an employer who draws up a fair and reasonable employment contract would not thereupon be entitled to force potential employees to accept it (Section 3.3.3), is not particularly dubious or controversial. It is not something that only libertarian ideologues would agree to.

Consider now the antiwar argument offered by the Chinese philosopher Mozi in the 5th century B.C.:

To kill one man is to be guilty of a capital crime, to kill ten men is to increase the guilt tenfold, to kill a hundred men is to increase it a hundredfold. This the rulers of the earth all recognize, and yet when it comes to the greatest crime - waging war on another state - they praise it! [ ... ] If a man on seeing a little black were to say it is black, but on seeing a lot of black were to say it is white, it would be clear that such a man could not distinguish black and white. [ ... ] So those who recognize a small crime as such, but do not recognize the wickedness of the greatest crime of all [ ... ] cannot distinguish right and wrong.[21]

Mozi's argumentative strategy is simple and compelling: he begins from an uncontroversial ethical prohibition, applies the same principle to a particular kind of government policy, and finds that the policy is morally unacceptable. It is in the spirit of Mozi that I question the institution of government as a whole. If one individual travels to another country to kill people, coercively extracts money from members of his own society, forces others to work for him, or imposes harmful, unjust, or useless demands on others through threats of kidnapping and imprisonment, the governments of the world all condemn that individual. Yet these same governments do not shy away from undertaking the same activities on a national scale. If we find Mozi's argument compelling, then it seems that we ought to find similarly compelling the argument that the great majority of government actions are ethically unacceptable.


1 Center for Systemic Peace 2011. I count as democracies all countries with scores of 6 or higher on the polity2 variable in the Polity IV dataset. Note that the dataset includes only countries with populations of at least 500,000 and that data are sparse before 1900. Nevertheless, the trend toward democracy is dramatic and undeniable. [Graphic updated. HB]

2 Aristotle 1941, Politics, 1255b4-12, 1255b37-9, 1256a22-6. 3 Pinker 2011, 129-33.

4 Pinker 2011, 149-53. Compare Chapter 9, footnote 10.

5 Compare Section 4.3.6.

6 Caplan and Stringham 2008, 507-8.

7 Ventrell-Monsees 2007. This estimate should be read with caution, as data on the subject are scarce.

8 Batten 2011, 346. Exceptions include cases of fraud or corruption on the part of arbitrators and some cases in which arbitration decisions are contrary to specific public policies. On the public policy exception, see United Paperworkers v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29 (1987) and Eastern Associated Coal Corp. v. Mine Workers, 531 U.S. 57 (2000).

9 Caplan (2010) defends this proposal.

10 Batten 2011, 345.

11 UN News Centre 2011. 12 Goldstein 2007.

13 Hamner n.d.

14 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2012; statistics based on 2010 spending levels.

15 Caplan (2009) stresses this point.

16 This 'state' would be even more minimal than what Nozick (1974, 26) dubs the 'ultraminimal state'.

17 See Section 7.1.3.

18 See Section 12.3.6.

19 Vastag (2009) discusses the benefits of Portugal's drug decriminalization program.

20 State of World Liberty Project 2006. The ranking is based on a composite of four indexes of freedom: (1) the Fraser Institute/Cato Institute's '2005 Economic Freedom of the World', (2) the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal's '2006 Index of Economic Freedom', (3) Freedom House's '2005 Freedom in the World', and (4) Reporters without Borders' 'Press Freedom Index'. Hong Kong ranks first in economic freedom, while the top position for personal freedom is a four-way tie among the Bahamas, Luxembourg, Malta, and Barbados.

21 From the epigraph to Kurlansky 2006.

Previous Chapter       The End

The Problem of Political Authority

An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey

Michael Huemer




Ancap FAQ

Library of Liberty